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Pickleball, A Growing Sport in Newtown, Is Fun For All



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Pickleball. Perhaps it is a game you know about. To a baseball fan, it sounds like something having to do with a rundown between bases, but pickleball is not a sport for bats, gloves, and a plate - although there is a portion of the court commonly referred to as the kitchen.

Paddles are used to try to hit the ball into the court area opposite a net. The game most resembles tennis, although it is played on a significantly smaller court. Singles and doubles matches are played, and a Wiffle-like ball is used.

"It's like badminton, tennis, and table tennis all rolled into one," said Jan Brown of Newtown, who picked up the game of pickleball seven or eight years ago. She is an International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association certified teacher, and this year, she was named the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) ambassador for Newtown.

Ms Brown's role as ambassador is to help promote and protect the integrity of the game, which includes keeping it inclusive, she said.

"The more people who play the sport, the better it is," said Ms Brown, who runs a free drop-in Tuesday night indoor pickleball program through Newtown Parks and Recreation during the winter months, along with her life partner Bruce Goulart, at Sandy Hook School.

When Ms Brown first heard about pickleball, she traveled to Ridgefield to play. She was among the first people to advocate for bringing the game to Newtown several years ago, following the lead of Sonja and Larry Haskel of Newtown, and its popularity has been on the rise ever since. Initially, players learned the game when Sonja Haskel taught the rules on makeshift courts a few years ago.

Mr and Mrs Haskel first played the sport in Florida, where they reside in the winter months.

"This is a great new sport in Newtown. So many people are coming out for this. It's probably the fastest growing sport in Newtown. We're getting people from everywhere," Larry Haskel said.

In addition to Newtown players, pickleball enthusiasts from neighboring towns come to play. On any given morning, there are as many as three doubles games occurring at once, with substitutes waiting their turns.

The Recreation Department put a designated pickleball court in at Treadwell Park three years ago. Subsequently, as the sport gained traction in town, lines were put on existing tennis courts at Treadwell, making the courts versatile and providing two more areas to play pickleball when they were not in use by tennis players.

"Newtown did a wonderful thing building us that court," said Ms Brown, adding that the single court was outgrown almost immediately, necessitating the lines on the tennis courts.

Lines for two courts were painted on a portion of a parking lot at Fairfield Hills (to the left of the ambulance garage from the Fruit Trail), with indoor nets set up outside, providing another place to play. Now, even more playing areas are needed, Ms Brown and other players said.

"We need more pickleball courts indoors and outdoors," Ms Brown added. "It's grown tremendously."

Good news for area pickleballers: Newtown's Parks & Recreation Department is working toward getting more courts in town.

"We have been getting many letters from pickleball players who are asking for more courts here in Newtown. They love the sport and say that we need more," Newtown Parks & Recreation Director Amy Mangold said. "The Parks & Recreation Commission discussed this at length at the past July Parks & Recreation Commission meeting. We will be putting the request for four courts at Fairfield Hills in the capital improvement plan budget for year 2020-21. We are forming a grassroots group to help advocate for this to help fundraise and get the project momentum for more courts through the proper boards and commissions."

A Game For All Ages

Pickleball is played by all ages, but is particularly popular for seniors. It is not uncommon to see pickleball players in their 60s, 70s, and beyond hitting the ball back and forth in singles or doubles games.

"Anybody can do it, all ages. It's not so hard on your body like tennis," Sonja Haskel said.

"It's unlike tennis, where the ball bounces a lot and you have to chase it. It's good aerobics, but it's not hard on the joints. So many people I know have given up tennis to play pickleball," Ms Brown said.

"It's good for us seniors because the courts are smaller, and there isn't as much running," added Judy O'Toole, a pickleball player from Newtown.

Ellen Limato of Danbury, who plays with a group at Treadwell, enjoys the game for those reasons.

"I love it. I'm a tennis player, but I find this better for my joints - not as much wear and tear," Ms Limato said during a break in the action at the Treadwell courts. "It's really for all ages."

Gerry Waterbury, also of Newtown, recently started playing pickleball. She used to play tennis.

"The rules are different. It takes some getting used to," Ms Waterbury said.

The camaraderie that is associated with the game is a draw for many of its participants.

"We love the game. It's addicting. I've only been playing a year. I met all these girls playing at the [YMCA] in Brookfield," Ms O'Toole said. "We love it because it's very social. It becomes a community. We need more courts in Newtown."

Paddles cost between $30 and $200, Ms Brown said. She had to order her first paddle online; now they are more readily available at sporting good stores, she said.

There is a difference between indoor and outdoor balls. Both have holes, but outdoor balls have more holes, which are smaller, factoring the wind.

Players serve the ball into boxes on the court, much like in tennis. The aforementioned kitchen is a term often used for the non-volley zone, an area the width of the court up near the net in which participants may only play the ball on a bounce.

According to the United States of America Pickleball Association (USAPA) website, , the game's origins date back only to 1965.usapa.org

"After playing golf one Saturday during the summer, Joel Pritchard, congressman from Washington state, and Bill Bell, successful businessman, returned to Pritchard's home on Bainbridge Island, Wash., (near Seattle) to find their families sitting around with nothing to do. The property had an old badminton court, so Pritchard and Bell looked for some badminton equipment and could not find a full set of rackets. They improvised and started playing with ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball," according to a segment on the history of the game on the USAPA site.

So why is it called pickleball anyway? The USAPA website lists a couple of possible reasons.

According to the USAPA site, "Pickleball has a very interesting name, especially since no pickles are used. Accounts of how the name originated differ."

The USAPA site indicates that according to Joel Pritchard's wife, Joan, she started calling the game pickleball because "the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats."

Another possible reason for the name as mentioned on the web page: "According to Barney McCallum (who was introduced to the game at the Prichard home), the game was officially named after the Pritchards' dog, Pickles, who would chase the ball and run off with it.

"Others claim both accounts may actually be true," the web page continues. "In the early years, no official name was assigned to the game. However, a year or two after the game was invented, the Pritchards purchased a cocker spaniel and named it Pickles. As the game progressed, an official name was needed, and 'pickleball' was it."

And why the non-volley zone is known as the kitchen is anybody's guess.

All of this may be complicated, but Ms Brown said it is easy to pick up the basics of the game quickly, and that players who have been on the pickleball court only for a few days can step up and give pointers to newcomers.

"It's just that kind of sport," said Brown, adding that information on pickleball playing opportunities, including tournaments, is available on the Newtown Pickleball Facebook page.

Jan Brown hits the ball while teammate Lil Martenson looks on during a game at Treadwell Park. Ms Brown is an International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association certified teacher, and this year, she was named the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) ambassador for Newtown. (Bee Photo, Hutchison)
Sonja Haskel, who first generated interest in pickleball by teaching the game before there were courts in town, follows through on her swing during play at Treadwell Park. Ms Haskel learned about the game during winter months spent in Florida. (Bee Photo, Hutchison)
Larry Haskel prepares to hit a return. Mr Haskel and his wife Sonja Haskel helped bring the sport to Newtown a few years ago. (Bee Photo, Hutchison)
Mary Ellen Limato keeps the ball in play during a match at Treadwell Park. (Bee Photo, Hutchison)
Joe Feltovich sends the ball back over the net. (Bee Photo, Hutchison)
Gerry Waterbury charges the net to keep a volley going. (Bee Photo, Hutchison)
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